A Song for Lady Day

Half a century after her death, Billie Holiday's music remains a cornerstone of the American songbook.


“Billie Holiday was, and still remains, the greatest single musical influence on me. Lady Day is unquestionably the most important influence on American popular singing in the last 20 years.”

—Frank Sinatra, 1958


Life is ultimately mysterious and indifferent about whom it gives much and from whom it expects a measure equal to its gifts. Those gifts are passed out with the same careless precision as handfuls of chicken feed hurled into a high wind.

Billie Holiday was obviously given much more than most, and her talent revealed itself through her intensity, her phrasing and her control of nuance more so than the conventional strengths of big sound, great range and stunning projection. Her voice was small, and her range was equally small. Standing next to most singers, she would never get you to put your money on her, unless you knew in advance that her emotional force and her ability to summon pathos, joy and melancholy with naked precision would demolish almost anyone intent on making a contest out of a hazardous moment on the bandstand with her. 

There the story of one performance with super virtuoso Sarah Vaughan. Vaughan was so profoundly endowed with a superior instrument that she sometimes could not avoid strutting her stuff to the point of obnoxiousness. But the ax fell. When Vaughan called up “I Cried For You,” Holiday whispered, “You done screwed up now, bitch. That’s my song.”